bikes in Paris

How Paris Quietly Became a Bike City

When I moved to Paris in 2013 one of the first things I did was obtain a Navigo card and after a couple months of buying monthly passes manually via machines I switched to an annual pass and have not had to think about topping up again.  The metro was the way I moved about Paris.

But after getting to know the Metro fairly well you realize that it’s often just as easy to walk to a certain location and you start making choices about what form of transportation makes the most sense given the weather, your mood, what you’re carrying, and what else you still need to accomplish.  Velib was already around when I arrived in 2013 and the shared bike boom followed by the rise in trottinette usage meant that options for transport have only multiplied since then.  The one form of transport that has received an explosive infusion of support from local government is bicycles.

Infrastructure

Now that bike lanes are so well-established in Paris, I wonder how so many of us were brave enough to ride with vehicle traffic for many years prior.  Cars and their drivers, convinced that everyone but them were simply “intruding” on their entitled space, didn’t make life easy for those of us on bicycles, but we figured that was simply the way it would be.  I mean, this wasn’t Amsterdam after all.  But little did most of us know that the Dutch model was exactly what Mayor Anne Hidalgo had in mind to transform Paris from the ground-up.

Plan Velo

Back in 2015, a year after Hidalgo’s first term began, the city started a project called Plan Velo.  This was a big play to make it significantly easier for bicyclists to navigate the city by creating north-south and east-west reseaus express velos (REVes), or “bike express lanes.”  Similar to what you are going to see on almost every street in the Netherlands, this is a protected bike lane that not only provides bidirectional traffic but also allows bikes to continue moving when their right-of-way is not impeded by traffic.  If you haven’t ridden in one of these before, you can’t possibly know how transformative it is.  It changes the experience of bicycling in the city from one analogous to driving a car, i.e. having to always pay attention while being subject to a lot of traffic and stoplights, to one of breezy insouciance: these north-south and east-west corridors make point-to-point travel significantly faster, safer, and more pleasant.

Plan Velo has paid off in numerous ways, not least of which was featuring as the centerpiece of Hidalgo’s successful re-election bid as Mayor.  Paris jumped up into the top ten of bicycle-friendly cities in the world during her first term.  The infrastructure in place during the late 2019 transportation strike also allowed for an overnight 54% jump in bicycle use among Parisians, many of whom did not go back to the Metro even after the strike ceased.

Hidalgo also seized on Danton’s (in)famous notion of audace during the early days of Covid-19 and took back Rue de Rivoli, the longest street in Paris, and limited it to one lane for buses and taxis.  She also created a number of “coronapistes” which created new protected bike lanes via removable plastic cones.  The reasoning given was that fewer cars were on the road because of lockdown and some people weren’t comfortable traveling in the confined spaces of the Metro.  But, just as with the accompanying “extended terrasse” permissions given to the restaurants, rights ceded were not going to simply be given back, and now Plan Velo 2 has arrived.

Plan Velo, Acte 2

Part of the infrastructure changes needed to pérennisée both the so-called coronapistes and the extended restaurant outdoor terraces was removal of the largest enemy of vibrant life in any city: cars.  Cars need a “home” in the form of parking places and 70% of the existing on-street parking spots designated for cars are being removed.

Hidalgo is running for President on the slimmest of chances and Plan Velo Acte 2, released last month (two days before her announcement to run for President), has to be seen as part of her case for progressive measures to form economic and social life at a granular level.  The benefit is enormous for those of us who live in the city (Paris as 100% cyclable by 2026, it promises), but it’s doubtful that people outside of Paris really care, as life in the French countryside, like life almost everywhere in America, is unimaginable without cars.  Indeed, such denizens would snort at her proposed 2030 gas-powered car ban, which seems quite reasonable to those of us who live in the capital, but might seem very odd to those who don’t.

That said, this plan involves investing 250M euros to make the entire city bikeable by adding another 180km of dedicated two-way cycling paths in addition to making permanent the 52km Hidalgo and her team snuck in via the coronapistes last year (to put that in perspective, at the moment we already have more than 1,000 km of bike paths, quite a few snaking into the suburbs).  There’s also budget for more passenger and cargo bike parking spots and cleaning and trash removal for cycling paths.

In addition there will be programs to teach children to ride bikes in schools, repair workshops in each arrondissement, and a cycling tourism push.

Mindset Shift

But having the infrastructure in place is only one part of the problem.  The second is getting Parisians to realize they are now living in a bike city and to make the changes in their behavior necessary.

In my early years of living in Europe I often said that the Netherlands was the only place in the world in which I was terrified of bikes.  The “ding ding” I heard struck fear into my heart as I wondered if I was standing in the wrong place, completely oblivious to my pending death at the hands of some kind person mounted on one of the country’s 23M bikes who would mutter “wat jammer” before moving my body to the side of the road and making a call to the relevant authorities to take care of my remains.

Often I was standing “in the wrong place” and quickly moved to avoid being mowed down.  Sometimes I wasn’t and it was someone else who was needing to be “dinged.”  The reason I was “terrified of bikes” in the Netherlands was because I didn’t have the right mindset.  After my first visit to what the French call the “low country” I flicked on a mental orange switch every time I came to the country (more than half a dozen times since 2014) that I was in a place where bikes, not cars, ruled.  I even, like a new car driver, ventured into the bike lanes on a borrowed bicycle and realized just how different the bicycling experience was when it was treated as a legitimate source of transportation.

Now that 95% of my trips in the city are on a bicycle (which Anne Hidalgo and her team helped pay for) I’m very aware that there are many Parisians who continue to remain as I was on my first trip to the Netherlands and thus have failed to install that mental switch.  This leads to near-misses with pedestrians including one time that I braked hard enough to simply gently bump into an instantly apologetic female pedestrian.

The lack of mindset shift is the same for Parisian bicyclists.  Many of them, like me, are new and don’t even use the proper hand signals for turning, thinking that a left turn means just putting your left hand out the way you do with your right hand to indicate a right hand turn, or never thinking to signal for an unexpected stop.

This all leads to a sometimes dangerous mix of cars, pedestrians, and cyclists who are getting used to a new way of living with each other which leads to situations like the one well-captured in the tweet below at Bastille.

One of the reasons that bicycling is so safe in the Netherlands is that every single car driver is a bicyclist as well.  That leads to an awareness that is now normative in the entire country.

While I don’t expect the unbelievable growth in bicycles here in the capital to lead to changes everywhere in France, it’s clear to me that cities that protect bicycles necessarily change the mindsets of the pedestrians and the car drivers.  It only takes one near miss by a careless pedestrian in the bike lane to suddenly render visible to that pedestrian what was previously an “invisible” bike lane.

It’s also clear that whatever will happen to her presidential ambitions, Hidalgo’s mayoral legacy is assured, if only for the transformation she has achieved for bicycles in the City of Light, a transformation that she persevered in against the noisy protests of car owners and their lobbyists, who seem to have forgotten that Paris and the rest of the world managed to exist, and exist quite well, thank you very much, without personal cars, for centuries.  For her work on this issue, Hidalgo deserves every Parisian’s gratitude.

This change to our city will take time.  In the meantime I’m enjoying all the benefits that come with riding a bicycle in Paris: a different perspective, speed of transportation (I regularly beat friends who take the Metro and leave at the same time I do for a shared destination), and thanks to the aforementioned Plans Velos, more protected infrastructure.

Ding ding.

Photo by Svetlana Gumerova on Unsplash

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This article also appeared on Medium.

No-Frills Train Travel: a New Trend

What if I told you that train companies were using principles pioneered by RyanAir and EasyJet and applying them to the convenience and speed of train travel?  If you love train travel as much as I do, you might be as excited as I was when I first found out about them.  Thankfully, I’m still excited about them, because they are generally great services that I’ve used multiple times over the last 4 years.

iDTGV

Back in 2004 SNCF created a program called iDTGV focused on budget travel to and from Paris.  The idea was simple: why not sell budget fares, only available via online ticketing, on older trains that can be towed behind undersold TGV trains that have to run anyway?  This would mean that underperforming routes could be subsidized and a new line of revenue would be created.  The service would have a stricter luggage provision and wouldn’t have onboard conductors (though there would still be a food carriage).  Instead, the tickets (and luggage) would be checked outside before boarding.  iDTGVs continue to be part of the ticketing mix offered by SNCF.

Ouigo

In 2013 SNCF, partially due to the pressure of the ultra-low-cost air carriers on rail passenger numbers, iterated further on iDTGV and came up with Ouigo.  There are is a “Oui” bus service called Ouibus (pronounced wee-boose), which are directly competing with Flixbus (fleex-boose) – comfortable seats, free internet, electrical outlets at each seat, and rock bottom pricing.  But I want to focus on Ouigo trains this time and may tell you more about the great bus lines in another article.

Ouigo trains offer amazing pricing: two of my friends took a Ouigo from Paris to Bordeaux this summer and paid 30€ each for the two hour trip – that line has recently been upgraded to shave 90 minutes off what used to be a 3.5 hour trip to the heart of the Atlantic coastal wine country.  Ouigo also runs to Montpellier, Lyon, Nantes, Lille, Rennes, and, of course, Paris.

So…what’s the catch?  There are several.

  • Tickets can only be bought online through the Ouigo site or at my personal favorite, Trainline (the French startup formerly known as Captain Train).  Tickets must be printed out or presented using a mobile app.  Not having your ticket printed can lead to you having to pay more before boarding.
  • Like iDTGV, your luggage is restricted, but even more so.  You are allowed one piece of hand luggage and additional pieces cost extra.
  • You won’t be using the “main” Paris stations.  Ouigo trains coming to Paris stop at CDG, Marne-la-Vallée (Disneyland), or Massy (in the dreaded suburbs).  This strategy means SNCF doesn’t cannibalize the revenue of the business traveler, who is quite happy to pay less to travel the same route if you make it easy, but if you tell him/her that the departures are from the three above stations, which vary from 45-90 minutes away from the center of Paris by RER, they will almost always pass.  Tell budget travelers the same thing (like saying you need to spend 70 minutes on a shuttle to get to Beauvais or that on Ouigo they will be arriving at Saint-Exupéry when they go to Lyon) and not only will they jump at the low fare, they might elbow you out of the way to ensure they get it before the tickets sell out.  The business reason is that SNCF has to pay less for trains departing from “budget” stations than from the main ones, which are the same questions that airlines face when choosing which airport to use and whether to use gates instead of stairs, etc.

How does SNCF limit costs with Ouigo?

  • As alluded to above, the fees it pays to the company that runs the stations, SNCF Reseau, are less for the “budget” stations.
  • Like iDTGV, there aren’t “conductors,” who are the single highest-paid staff on the trains for SNCF, but rather a team that is tasked with doing multiple things, from cleaning, to addressing customer issues, security, etc.
  • There is no food carriage.
  • There is no customer service phone number or email address.  You can only address complaints or questions using the website.
  • Ouigo trains are run up to 13 hours a day, almost double the standard seven for most TGV trains.  They can run on their own or be simply added on to an existing TGV service, so SNCF can leverage the assets as best needed.

Ouigo has sold over five million tickets since inception, 80% of which sold for 35 euros or less.

Thayls, which most of us associate with The Netherlands, is actually a subsidiary of SNCF, and unsurprisingly, with Ouigo’s success, a version has popped up called IZY (A French speaker would pronounce those letters as “easy” which is the branding play hoped for, but an English speaker might understandably ask, “What’s an Izzy?”).

IZY

IZY one-ups iDTGV and Ouigo by offering rock bottom pricing – as low as 10 euros, and offers an outside-of-France option: Brussels.  The first time I took IZY I saw 18 IZY carriages hitched up to 6 Thayls ones.  Now, keep in mind that a regular Thayls fare to the Netherlands (Rotterdam, Schipol, or Centraal) averages between 90-150 euros, so a journey that takes half that time (and half the distance) at 10 euros is quite a deal.  Those fares sell out quickly as they are “standing” tickets, as do the 19€ “sit in the unheated/uncooled hallway of the carriage” fares, but even the 29 and 39 euro fares sell pretty quickly.  A nice aspect to this budget service is that if you do buy the 10€ “standing” fare, and there are seats available when the train departs, the staff will invite you to have a seat (I got “upgraded” from the 19€ fare I paid in that manner the last time I took an IZY).

* * *

There are whispers of more continent-wide programs similar to what Ouigo and Izy are pioneering.  This can only be good news for travelers who will get more options, and less-expensive ones, to satisfy their wanderlust.  The first “big” play in trains, continentally, will come when Eurostar finally launches their London-Amsterdam line, which was supposed to launch December 2016, but is currently slated for Easter 2018.  To be fair, it is Eurostar’s most ambitious project, and requires coordination and cooperation with the train companies in 4 different countries.  The train will take around 4 hours from city center to city center, and that makes it, like the Paris-London Eurostar, faster than flying, which will necessarily cause airfares to drop between those destinations.

That said, traveling to the Low Countries these days presents the traveler with a bit of an oddity: security screening.  With the terrorist shadow we have lived with the past three years, the trains are expected to do “something” except that train passengers are used to not being screened.  So what ends up happening on outbound services is a very long line in which people walk through metal detectors, set them off, and get waved through anyway (like what happens around 16h00 every day at the Louvre and Orsay, when the staff have decided they’ve done enough work for the day) and bags are put through a screening process that sometimes features no one monitoring bags.  They are moving too quickly to truly catch anything, and I can only hope that something doesn’t happen on one of the trains because skipping the hassles of air travel is one of the great pleasures of rail travel.

Those pleasures await you on these innovative (and inexpensive) services.

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash